Vet to Vet: An Interview with Thomas Dang

Meet Thomas Dang, an eleven-year Marine Corps Reservist, ceramic artist from Glendale, California, and the subject of the second of my occasional interviews for this “Vet to Vet” series. Dang’s work was featured front and center at the Euphrat Gallery in Cupertino, his piece “Bombs Away” earning cover photo honors for the piece I did on the “War and Healing” exhibit for the New York Times.

Dang is an infantry grunt with two tours to Iraq and float to Southeast Asia under his belt. His work (“Raku 18” is pictured to the left) has a munitions theme, but as you’ll learn below, his art is influenced by more than his military experience. 

How did you get involved in the exhibit at the Euphrat?

It’s interesting to mention, but the veteran community is very small, especially with Marines.  It’s even smaller in the the art world, specifically ceramics.  When I got into the field of ceramics, I thought I was the only Marine that has ever gotten involved with this medium until I came across Ehren Tool at a ceramics conference. [I interviewed Ehren Tool for the first iteration of this series] His work truly inspired me because it was exactly what I was shooting for.  After meeting him, he’s been passing the word around to me or getting my info out to other galleries that are interested in showing artwork from veterans.  That’s how I got contacted from Euphrat specifically, and from finishing up a show from Alameda, I brought that work straight from there to Euphrat.

This feeling of being the “only one,” I hear veterans all the time express something similar but more generally, that they feel isolated once back in the civilian world, that they are the only ones having certain challenges or issues. Does that resonate generally with you? Can art help that in some way, either for the artist themselves or for the larger community?

That definitely resonates with me.  Coming back from any deployment you get that feeling of isolation, that no one can understand what you go through or what you have gone through, and the struggles you faced, and the brothers you’ve lost.  There are many times today that I feel isolated in that sense.  It’s a community, language, and understanding that us veterans get just by looking at one another, not even having to say a word but the eyes say it all and you can shake your head and knod in understanding.

Creating art is a great way to express the experiences and language barrier from what the community may not be able to understand in words.  By looking at the artwork that my fellow amazing veteran artists have made, the connection between the larger community and those that follow these artists speak for itself.  I think it’s a great way for veterans who do feel isolated to come into a different persepective and see that common language that the community can share.

Can you talk a little about why you chose your subject matter, and what you hope people learn from your work?

Going through academia with art was not as easy as I thought it would be.  I initially just wanted to make work and wasn’t really sure why.  Having my committee challenge me, I always knew what I wanted to talk about but it usually stays within the confines of other combat veterans.  I wanted to express my experiences in a way that other veterans can visually relate to, and yet still reach out to other viewers that would grasp their attention of our experiences.  In addition, it ties into my study in pathogenic organisms.  I wanted to be able to connect my military experience as well as my studies in microbiology.  My goal was not to extend any political viewpoint on war but to express my experiences of combat.  The “Bombs Away” installation is a symbol of warfare and addresses the cynical comedy of warfare and articulates the metaphors of biological and chemical weapons.

What is your background in Microbiology? Why combine those two disparate fields (microbiology and the infantry) into the artillery shells to explain your combat experience?

Microbiology was always fascinating to me as a subject and what it applies to in our daily lives.  I believe to see microbes as the universal donor that provides the world with whatever it needs, but the dark side to them, they can cause major catostrophic events and be manipulated by people to use as weapons of mass destruction. Biological and chemical warfare is something that we all fear that will come with opposing countries and wish that it we will never see the day for such a drastic event. Combining these topics just sets the idea of future quarrels that we may face with certain countries trying to obtain nuclear weapons. However, biological warfare can be as straighforward as artillery shells to anthrax spores in an envelope.

What was it about ceramics that attracted you, as a medium?

I was first attracted to ceramics by seeing someone “throw” on the pottery  wheel.  Just watching someone form an amazing piece from a lump of clay was watching magic form right in front of me.  From then, I took a local community ceramics class just throwing on the wheel.  In addition, I was always intrigued by making something functional from scratch.  I orginially started making functional ware and found a great interest of the connection that I had with people when they would use my work daily, especially when I was deployed. It was that connection that drew me to making work related to my military experience.

So how did you make the projectile forms? The tails are generic, but the nose cones and rings look like you may have cast them from actual ordnance. How did you create the work?

The projectile forms are all made from porcelain which were formed off the pottery wheel and assembled together by hand.  I didn’t really use any reference for creating the bombs, but just went off of what I remember from discovering IED’s and being mortared, which influenced the pieces being hung.